Traveler Classic: Rare Motion Pictures Show Civil War Veterans at Gettysburg

Union veteran (1862 enlistee) William Henry Jackson at the Gettysburg 75th anniversary reunion in 1938. Jackson was one of the last surviving Civil War veterans when he died in 1942 at age 99. National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.

With the Civil War 150th anniversary commemoration gathering steam, this is a good time to reach into the Traveler archives and pull out one of our most popular posts: a February 11, 2009 article with links to videos showing movies of Civil War veterans at the Gettysburg 75th anniversary reunion in 1938. [Ed.]

Gettysburg National Military Park celebrates its birthday on February 11, but it was the battle anniversaries that interested Civil War veterans. In 1938, the 75th anniversary of the battle, motion picture crews filmed the aged veterans as they gathered for their final reunion on the battlefield. There’s some amazing film footage on the Internet.

In the immediate aftermath of the biggest and bloodiest battle of the Civil War -- the July 1-3, 1863, Battle of Gettysburg that produced 51,000 casualties and a key Union victory – few survivors were interested in revisiting the scene of the carnage. With the passage of years, however, a good deal of interest in veterans reunions emerged.

Many veterans reunions took place at Gettysburg. At first these reunions were only for veterans who took part in the epic battle. Later, when fewer Civil War veterans remained alive, the Gettysburg reunions were for any and all Civil War veterans. The reunions held in 1878, 1913, and 1938 are especially noteworthy, being larger in scale and marking “touchstone” battle anniversaries.

15th Anniversary Reunion

The first of Gettysburg’s three larger, more heavily publicized veterans reunions was held in1878 on the 15th anniversary of the battle. It was strictly a Grand Army of the Republic affair, and it isn’t hard to appreciate why Confederate veterans weren’t on the scene. Only 15 years after the cessation of hostilities, the North and South were still divided in spirit even if not in fact. The burden of recent defeat still lay heavily on the South. Reconstruction had been a protracted humiliating experience, and some southern locales still hosted Federal occupying troops. (Here in South Carolina where I live, the last Reconstruction-era Federal troops didn’t leave until 1879.)

50th Anniversary Reunion

The largest of all the veterans reunions, a gathering that drew more than 50,000 Union and Confederate veterans, took place in 1913 on the 50th anniversary of the battle. The passage of half a century had tempered regional animosities a good deal and the surviving veterans on both sides felt a sense of kinship – the Brotherhood of Battle, as it were. There were still plenty of veterans around, too. Though getting on in years, some Civil War veterans were still in their early sixties and the youngest was said to be 61.

The reunion gave the veterans a chance to visit the battlefield hotspots of their memories, swap stories and souvenirs, and do the myriad little things that make battlefield reunions so special to the surviving veterans. There were plenty of programmed activities, of course, including speeches, reenactments, ritual expressions of friendship between Union and Confederate veterans, and ceremonies at battlefield monuments and markers.

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the huge 50th anniversary reunion was the “Great Camp,” the 280-acre encampment that was set up to accommodate the hordes of veterans on hand. Each veteran was assigned a cot in a tent sleeping eight men. The thousands of tents set up for the Great Camp created nearly 48 miles of avenues and company streets. (What a sight that was!). Hot meals were provided from 173 field kitchens.

75th Anniversary Reunion

The years following the 1913 reunion took a very heavy toll on the ranks of the remaining Civil War veterans. By 1938, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, records indicated that their numbers had dwindled to somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 to 11,000. Given that the youngest of the Civil War vets were in their late 80s, it’s a wonder that nearly 2,000 attended the reunion that was held at the battlefield from June 29 to July 6, 1938. It’s thought that fewer than 70 of the attendees had actually been present at Gettysburg during the battle.

This final major reunion of Civil War vets didn’t have the aura of spectacle that prevailed at the 50th anniversary reunion. You just couldn’t do a lot of physically taxing things with elderly gents (average age 94) who had “lost the pep in their step.” In fact, many were no longer ambulatory and some even arrived in Gettysburg on stretchers.

Most of what transpired at this last reunion was ceremonial in nature and arranged for the tens of thousands of spectators -– a wheelchair-prominent parade of veterans (of all wars), a military flyover, that sort of thing. The big event was the dedication of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial (on Oak Hill), a ceremony highlighted by President Franklin Roosevelt’s speech and a joint Union/Confederate undraping of the memorial and lighting of its eternal flame.

A sense of closure or finality pervaded the 1938 reunion. Everyone realized that the advanced age and frailty of the veterans would make further reunions of any decent size impractical, and that most of the old vets would soon be dead.

The academicians and media representatives on hand were primed to take advantage of the grand opportunity this final reunion presented. Historians and ethnologists gathered oral histories. Journalists conducted interviews. Photographers took scads of black and white stills. And much to the delight of generations to follow, cinematographers were on the scene to take motion pictures (some with sound).

You Can Step Back in Time

Do you want to step back to a time when Civil War veterans were still alive and sharing their stories?

If so, check out the following video and see what is probably the most interesting of all the Civil War veteran movie clips. It shows Union and Confederate veterans shaking hands over the stone wall at the Bloody Angle on Cemetery Ridge, the place that marked the crest of Pickett’s Charge and the High Tide of the Confederacy. Several Confederates spice up the occasion by rendering their version of the “rebel yell.” (This is apparently the only authentic audio recording of a Confederate veteran rendering this battle cry on a Civil War battlefield.)

There’s more archival film footage, but I especially like the well-edited montage of digitally enhanced archival motion picture footage of the 1938 reunion that you can view below.

Comments

these old films a far from rare. They have been utilized in many productions, from documentaries to feature films. They are a regular to any advanced Civil War study. Granted they are not mainstream and "viral", but the knowledge of their existence and the ability to find them on the net does not make them rare or really news worthy. Would like seeing the Traveler acting real in their approach to "news" and not so hype based as this is. Side note... it is interesting footage, but not rare.

Yes, it is interesting footage, Bob. Thanks for making our point, and thanks for being a Traveler reader.

Incidentally, Bob, please note that a word's meaning relates to its context. The subject of this article is film footage of Civil War veterans, and that is what is in exceedingly short supply. Using the footage over and over in various contexts doesn't make it any less scarce. By the same token, you cannot make black-footed ferrets or California condors any less rare by publishing millions of pictures of them.

Speaking of context, Bob, if you will take a closer look at the Traveler homepage, you will see that this article was never labeled as news. It's listed in the section labeled Features. Our news articles are listed over there on the left, right under the heading that reads "News."

Thank you for posting these videos. They were wonderfully touching and makes me think of our remaining World War II vets today and the brevity of life. It was truly beautiful seeing those elderly Civil War vets being honored.

Interesting. Especially so because William Henry Jackson was THE western photographer who chronicled so much of its exploration. He was with the Hayden survey in Yellowstone.

I found a short biography at an NPS website:
http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/sontag/jackson.htm

Great videos, thanks for posting. It makes my visit to Gettysburg all the more memorable. It is gratifying to see pictures of veterans of the war who may have actually been at the battle.

Very moving footage. Thank you for bringing it to us.
We are now as far removed from that reunion as they were from the battle. What miracles those guys had seen in their lives. And watching the old vets being honored by the contemporary soldiers made me think about what was to befall those very soldiers within a few short years.
And what miracles those guys have seen...